Thai and Chinese navy officers attend a joint military exercise on May 4, 2019, in China's Guangdong province. Image: Royal Thai Navy.

BANGKOK — An upcoming naval exercise between the ASEAN community with the United States will have no impact on the group’s relations with China, defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan said Thursday.

The joint drill is set to take place later this year and will mark the first such cooperation with the Americans, raising speculations among some analysts that the U.S. is attempting to counter growing Chinese influence in the bloc. But Gen. Prawit said ASEAN has engaged in similar efforts with China before.

“Just last year, we also held an exercise with the People’s Republic of China,” Prawit responded to the pre-selected question. “The goal of these exercises is to encourage military cooperation with all partners that play important roles in the region.”

Read: ASEAN Leaders Call for Restraint Amid Sea Row, US-China Rift

The military drill and overall security in the South China Sea were among the topics discussed today at the 13th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok. It was Prawit’s last major appearance as a defense minister after five years in the post; junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha will head the ministry on top of serving as Prime Minister in the next cabinet.

In a joint statement released after a closed door meeting that reporters were not allowed to attend, the 10 nations agreed to a wide range of cooperation, from cybersecurity and counter-terrorism intel to trans-border crimes and military hospitals.

Less than an hour after an opening speech extolled a “people-centric” ASEAN, officials informed reporters that they would not be permitted to ask questions during the joint news conference. The media were asked to submit their questions beforehand instead.

Defense Minister and deputy junta chairman Prawit Wongsuwan presents a joint declaration.

Three out of five questions selected by the organizers were about the People’s Republic, albeit with the usual euphemisms: whether the ASEAN-U.S. naval exercise would upset China, how agreements made at the summit would impact relations with “superpowers in the region,” and what the ministers’ stance on the South China Sea were.

Reading from a prepared script, Gen. Prawit said the summit helped establish reliable channels of communication with regional superpowers in the event of a “crisis,” and promoted trust between all parties involved.

He also said an ongoing attempt by ASEAN and China to draft codes of conduct and navigation rules in South China Sea – where tensions between China and two ASEAN members have been rising – will be completed in the near future.

“We aim to build trust, confidence and self-restraint, and prevent any action that would further complicate the situation,” Prawit said.

Thai and Chinese navy officers attend a joint military exercise on May 4, 2019, in China’s Guangdong province. Image: Royal Thai Navy.

China claims ownership over most of the South China Sea, which is one of Asia’s most important shipping lanes and believed to host a variety of natural resources. The claims are disputed by the Philippines and Vietnam, who accuse China of militarizing the islands and hindering ship movement in the area.

Today’s joint declaration included a commitment to promoting “freedom of navigation” in accordance with international laws and to reducing any possible confrontation in the South China Sea.

Prawit said he believes the summit will lead to “sustainable security” in the region.

“No more questions, right?” Prawit said at the end of the no-question news conference before leaving the room, to the ironic chuckles of some reporters.

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